Volume 77 / Number 52 - May 28 - June 3, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Reverend Billy preached through his megaphone after popping inside the Union Square construction fence last week, above. Below, cutouts of “Union Square heroes” that Billy’s disciples held during the protest.

Performance preacher calls pavilion sacred space

By Jefferson Siegel

Last Wednesday, the anti-consumer activist Reverend Billy held the first of many promised “First Amend-a-thons” to protest what he branded the privatization of Union Square Park.

At recent Critical Mass rides, Reverend Billy, real name Bill Talen, joined cyclists before the rides to criticize plans to install a private, seasonal-concession restaurant in the pavilion at the north end of Union Square Park. Now that construction has begun and the north plaza has been fenced off, Billy and a group of followers descended on the plaza on Wednesday afternoon May 21 to recite the First Amendment and call for a halt to the construction.

Invoking historical figures such as George Washington and even Thelonius Monk, Billy blasted plans that he charged would privatize public spaces throughout the city.

“This is our Temple of Free Speech,” Billy intoned, pointing at the pavilion, a site of countless demonstrations and protests since being built in 1930, “a stage where our American conscience came out in the songs of Paul Robeson, the shouts of Emma Goldman and the prayers of Dorothy Day.

“You can’t turn the Temple of Free Speech into a restaurant,” he warned. The site was occupied by previous pavilions since the mid-1800s.

Just as his past protests at Starbucks found him drawn into those stores, so too did he find himself drawn into the construction area. Slipping in between a gap in the chain-link construction fence, Billy took his large white megaphone to the side of a bulldozer, where he continued to preach. Crowds from the Greenmarket lined the fence to watch and listen.

After a few minutes Billy was joined inside the fence by his wife, Savitri D., and several others holding large cutout figures of “Union Square heroes.” After 15 minutes of preaching, the group left, promising to return on successive Wednesdays. There were no arrests.

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